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'Badly drafted' snooping charter leaves ISPs puzzled

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One of the UK's largest independent ISPs has said that it may well have ran foul of the RIP Act in protecting its customers from the Anna Kournikova virus.

Claranet introduced a mail filter to ensure that the virus did not reach its 450,000 users, but by doing so, it believes it may have breached the controversial "charter for Government snooping" that is the RIP Act.

Steve Rawlinson, chief technical officer at Claranet, said: "Our own servers were immune to the attack, and we acted quickly to put in place measures on our servers to protect our customers from becoming infected with the extremely prolific Anna Kournikova virus."

The ISP has developed in-house software that would examine an email and reject it from the server if it contained the Anna Kournikova virus, thereby protecting Claranet's customers from the harmful virus. The mail filter was designed to examine the email header for the specific virus filename attachment, and if detected return a message to the sender with a note informing them of the infection.

"After obtaining legal advice, we are concerned that our action has meant that we have breached the RIP Act," said Rawlinson, who said he would raise the subject at the next meeting of ISP trade body, LINX.

Part of the Act states that it is an offence to "intentionally and without lawful authority" intercept any communication in the course of its transmission, something that Claranet is concerned it may have breached.

"We need clarification as to whether the measures that we introduced are considered to be interception," said Rawlinson. "There are provisions under the RIP Act that allow interception in order to ensure system integrity or to prevent crime, our actions could be covered by either of these conditions, but it is unclear. This needs to be cleared up in a code of practice or secondary legislation."

Dai Davis, an IT lawyer with the firm Nabarro Nathanson, agreed that the RIP Act was "badly drafted and ambiguous" but said that in his opinion Claranet's actions were likely to have been lawful.

"My reading is that it is lawful to intercept viruses, because it can be argued that nobody wants that communication, which is in any case illegal, but it's not lawful to intercept spam," said Davis, who said that ISPs would be well advised to put a clause in contracts allowing them to deal with virus-infected or spam email.

Last month, UUNet examined the headers of email messages to delete those associated with a spam attack it was dealing with at the time, which left many of the ISP's customers with severely affected services for almost a week. In clearing up after the attack, which involved deleting two million pieces of spam, UUNet may have breached the RIP Act, although the ISP has said its engineers did nothing illegal because their actions were done in connection with providing a telecommunications service.

Davis disputes this reading of the Act but said that whether an ISP was blocking viruses or spam it was very unlikely to be prosecuted. ®

Related Stories

Police request right to spy on every UK phone call and email
Email snooping row kicks off again
Dutch police arrest Anna Kornikova virus suspect
Anna Kournikova bug drops harmlessly onto the Net
Anna Kournikova virus spreading like wildfire
Spammer wrecks UUNet email service
UUNet still pole-axed

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